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Concerns arise at RHS over anonymous reporting app

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By Ryan Lowery

Las Vegas City Schools will soon introduce a smartphone application designed to make it easier for students to report inappropriate or dangerous activities happening on campus.

The app, called STOPit, was designed by a New Jersey-based software company as a way to allow students to anonymously report things like drug use, bullying, inappropriate student-teacher relationships, or even a planned school shooting.

STOPit will soon be available to students at Robertson High School, but City Schools Superintendent Kelt Cooper did not know an exact date STOPit would be launched. He said when it is ready to launch, the school will notify parents with a letter, and training on how to use the app will be provided to students.

“This is in response to growing concerns of safety,” Cooper said. “I’m all for it because there’s a lot of things that kids know that are happening at school that we don’t always pick up.”

Cooper said the use of STOPit is free to the district and will currently only be available to students at Robertson. Once installed on a student’s smartphone, the student can anonymously submit any concern through the STOPit app, and that message will be sent directly to school administrators.

“It’ll go to the principals, and our technology director,” Cooper said. “They’re required to report everything to me, so I make the ultimate decisions on where to go with investigations.”

According to STOPit’s Chief Revenue Officer, Neil Hooper, the app is being used by 2,800 schools nationwide, in about 800 school districts. Hooper said the app was created in 2014 to help prevent teen suicides.

“There was this story of this young girl who committed suicide after being relentlessly tormented online,” he said. “We thought, as a team, let’s do something about this.”

While STOPit may provide students a way to report legitimate concerns on campus, some have raised concerns over the anonymous nature of the app, fearing students may abuse STOPit to seek revenge against teachers. In fact, during its regular August meeting, the West Las Vegas Schools Board of Education briefly discussed City Schools’ use of STOPit.

“I would never want us to do something like that,” board member Christine Ludi said to the board. “To me, STOPit is dangerous. They could be doing false reporting. You could be ruining someone’s life with that. Especially if a kid wants to be vindictive because he was told off by a teacher or something.”

West Las Vegas Superintendent Chris Gutierrez told the board he’d looked into using STOPit, but the district has no plans of implementing it at this time.

“I started reviewing it and did bring it into administrative meetings,” Gutierrez told the board. “We started weighing the pros and cons. Because a lot of it was anonymous, really it’s hearsay.”

Rachael Stickland, the co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, sees potential abuse problems with STOPit as well.

“These kids’ brains aren’t fully developed,” she said. “They don’t fully understand that what they think might be a joke, has actual consequences for people.”

City Schools’ superintendent Cooper said he’s heard from teachers who have concerns about potential abuse of the app.

“Some of the teachers have expressed concern that if it’s anonymous, some students may report on them,” Cooper said. “But the truth of the matter is, there are certain teachers that aren’t doing what they’re supposed to.”

The makers of STOPit admit there have been incidents of fraudulent reports being submitted through the app, but Hooper said it’s rare.

“Less than 2 percent have been tagged as false,” he said. “But 2 percent is 2 percent, so there are a few bad characters out there. We have put a number of mechanisms into place to help make it more difficult to send a false report.”

One of those mechanisms is a two-way chat feature called Messenger. It gives school administrators the ability to respond, in real time, to the person reporting an incident, much like a text message. Hooper said the report remains anonymous, but the two-way chat allows administrators to ask questions to determine the validity of the report.

“Just like we were taught from our parents, if you try to spin a lie, defending it becomes more and more difficult over time,” Hooper said. “When the administrators respond back and start asking for details about what was submitted, it’s pretty straightforward to uncover what’s true, and what might not be. If anyone is abusing the system, we have the ability to deactivate them.”

According to Hooper, while STOPit is anonymous, each phone using the app has a unique connection to its network, so if multiple false reports are coming from the same phone, those reports can be scrutinized. If the problem persists, access to the app from that specific phone can be blocked.

“Think of it as a pause button, or being put in the penalty box,” Hooper said. “You deactivate them for a period of time, and then you allow them back in.”

While the amount of data collected from a user may be small, Stickland worries that the collection of any data removes the app’s key feature, anonymity.

“Even though somebody walking into the building doesn’t know who that student is, certainly the administration could and would find out who it was if they wanted to,” she said. “Kids do need access to a way to report to an adult, but I’m just not sure this tech solution is replacing what should be a trusted adult.”